(I think it goes without saying that this is another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)
As this is to be the first of many posts breaking down the visual rhetoric of Game of Thrones, I want to tell you either “You’re welcome!” or “I’m sorry!” I need to write them for my class this quarter so they will written. Regular blogging will continue as usual. (See?) Now on to “Winter Is Coming.”
For those of you who haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s Games of Thrones, it’s important to note that there are twenty-four characters through whose perspective the narrative is occasionally focalized, meaning that the writers and directors of the television series needed to go full-Rashomon or find another way to imbue each episode with the feel of perspectival diversity. Which makes the decision to open “Winter Is Coming” with the Prologue odd but instructive. On the one hand, beginning where the novel begins is a simple decision: Martin placed the Prologue where he did because he wanted to set the mood for the scenes to come and director Tim Van Patten followed suit. On the other hand, in an episode that can only be 52 minutes long and in which numerous perspectives must be introduced, devoting 11 minutes to the quick end of the short life of Will, the Prologue’s narrator, seems excessive. I’m going to argue otherwise: what the material contained in the Prologue provides the audience is a means of sympathizing with the different perspectives on Will’s life and death, and in so doing begins to recreate the structure of the novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First we need to be introduced to Will:
He’s one of those little black dots on horseback in this extreme long or establishing shot, the purpose of which is establish the scale of the wall by providing us with an identifiable reference and the state of the environment by showing us an unimaginably large wall made of ice and a cover of snow that follows the wall to the vanishing point. Before we even meet Will, then, Van Patten informs us that he is a small man beholden to powers great enough to build and maintain that wall, and that he is likely in peril, because no one who isn’t builds and lives behind a wall like that. Moreover, the contrast between the blue-white snow and the black riders suggests that not only is Will in peril, he’s conspicuously so, which means he’s all the more likely to meet a sad end. And Van Patten’s communicated all of this in a single shot.
He cuts to another establishing shot that works much like the first: in what we’ll call a very long shot, the world is still white and empty of all but some men and trees. This is the classic Russian technique of turning a forest into the cinematic equivalent of a barren desert: the only life visible is either human or snow-coated evergreen. These riders aren’t as tiny as they were in the opening shot, but the scale still makes them appear vulnerable because they’re still dominated by the other elements of the frame. The deep focus suggests that all of the elements in the scene may be of equal importance, which is strange because the only visible elements are the people and the trees. Combined with the relatively high-key lighting, which should allow us to see everything in the scene, the deep focus creates the conflicting impression that we can see everything in the scene, but that there’s something in it that we’re still not seeing. But if it’s there why can’t we see it?
It could be because we are the something we can’t see and we’re watching the riders approach from our point-of-view. Intimating that camera’s perspective belongs to something monstrous is quite common in horror films and series. For example, the first episode of The Walking Dead, “Days Gone By,” fiddled with this suggested perspective for nearly five minutes before dispensing with the conceit. Van Patten only plays with it momentarily, but the effect is unsettling enough because as the riders move closer to the camera, their faces become more distinct, and the more we can distinguish about them from their faces, the more likely we are sympathize with them. In the long shot above, the rider’s face betrays a wariness about what’s behind the trees, and well he should, because it might be us and we might be a monster. We’re not. However!
What is that? Another long shot of trees in deep focus. It should be disconcerting for the same reason the previous long shot of trees in deep focus was: we should be able to see everything in the shot, but there’s nothing that demands our attention except maybe a little mist. The shot is highly structured: on the vertical axis, two trees occupy the central area and two more flank the left and right sides of the frame. A single line of dark something bisects the frame horizontally. When a shot is this structured it suggests either literal or figurative confinement. Encountering the symmetry of entrapment in the middle of a vast wood compounds the earlier disquieting suggestions and doesn’t Will know it:
Or maybe he doesn’t. The medium close-up alone just indicates that we’re looking at him looking at those eerily symmetrical trees. But wait!
Van Patten begins zooming in from the medium close-up into a genuine close-up. We may have the beginning of what I refer to as a “thinking zoom,” in which a director zooms in on a character’s face in order to indicate that that character has had a thought. Did Will?
Will most certainly did. Note that when Van Patten zoomed into the extreme close-up he also elevates the level of framing slightly in order to emphasize Will’s widening eyes. Will’s not just thinking that there’s something’s odd about those trees, he believes he’s seen something that verifies his thoughts. He’s not sure he’s seen what he thinks he’s seen but he’s not about to take a chance:
He climbs a drift to take a closer look at the trees and examine what he thinks he might have seen. He looks to his left and Van Patten employs another eyeline match to show us what Will sees near that mist:
The long shot of the mist clears up one thing: it’s smoke not mist. But the long shot doesn’t provide enough visual information for us to make any sense of it. There’s smoke and some other things there but it’s difficult to discern what those other things are. But there are some disturbing inferences for Will to draw from what he can see: the first is that these riders aren’t alone, someone else set and abandoned that fire; the second is that something bad may have happened to that someone else because people don’t abandon fires in this environment unless they have good reason to. Why am I discussing this long shot as if it’s a point-of-view shot from Will’s perspective? Because I think it is. Van Patten’s bridging these shots together via eyeline matches:
When he cuts back to Will behind the drift, Will looks to his right instead of his left this time and sees:
An extreme close-up of a head upon a stake. The zoom from the long shot of the smoke to the close-up of the head is the point-of-view equivalent of the thinking zoom. Instead of zooming into the mind of the character thinking, this zoom approximates what happens when a perspectival character paying more attention to an object in the mise-en-scene. Van Patten provides further evidence that Will’s been thinking when he cuts back to him:
Moving in to a close-up on the reverse is something like an implied thinking zoom. It also provides us with a better opportunity to read Will’s face and sympathize with the horror written upon it. There’s an intimacy to a close-up that naturally engenders sympathy in audience members who capable of it. It can also be quite creepy, as demonstrated by the image from Eyes Wide Shut that the Yale Film Analysis site uses an example. Where exactly are we, the audience, in relation to Cruise and Kidman in that shot? That’s right: we’re standing three inches from their noses while they’re making out. Point being: we can more clearly read Will’s face now and that allows us to better sympathize with the dismay he feels at what he’s seeing. Which is:
He looked to his left and his right before looking straight ahead and taking in the whole scene. Remember earlier when I mentioned that the high-key lighting and deep focus suggested that we should’ve been able to see something that wasn’t there? This may be that something. Even the way Van Patten edited this sequence suggests that this is something Will didn’t want to be seeing: he looked left and couldn’t make it out, looked right and noticed the head on the stake, and only then did he confront what he didn’t want to see. But there the ghastly scene is and he has no choice but to survey it. Then of course run. Running is a bad thing for a member of the Night’s Watch to do: the penalty for running is death. His companions think him a coward and ask him if he wants to run. He declines and decides to return to the scene of the massacre. But when he returns with his fellow riders there’s nothing there. No mutilated corpses. No heads on spikes. Just trees and snow and the remains of that fire and what’s this?
Let’s have a closer look at that:
It’s a red something.
A red what?
A red something that’s not as important as what’s behind you.
You mean the trees and snow?
He doesn’t mean the trees and snow. Note the difference in the depth of field in this series of reverse shots. The rider with the red something is shot in deep focus, whereas his companion is shot in shallow. The shallow focus allows the white walker to enter the frame without being immediately intelligible. It’s a tall something with blue eyes whose creepiness is partly a function of our inability to see exactly who or what it is. Like the earlier shots of the forest, this use of shallow focus is another means of showing the audience what’s there without exactly showing us what’s there. The horror, in short, is a function of what we imagine we see when it’s not there and can’t quite focus on when it is. The least horrifying shot in the sequence is the one immediately above because we can so clearly see what’s in it. But that’s only because I captured one of the two or three frames in which the white walker’s visible. If you watch the episode, that frame occupies the screen for a split-second before Van Patten cuts to poor Will:
Poor Will who was right about everything but not believed. Van Patten continues using shallow focus here because he’s already established that terrible things can appear in it. As it happens what’s frightening Will now is directly in front of him: it’s the white walker about to behead his only remaining companion. Will now has no choice but to run, and run with the knowledge that he’s running from one certain death to another. Which is exactly what happens:
The transition from the snow-covered forest to the green field full of knights straddles the opening credit sequence, but the contrast makes it point nonetheless: not only has poor Will run, he’s run quite far and possibly for quite some time, but he hasn’t outrun the horrors he saw or the death he sentenced himself to. He could’ve chosen to die at the hands of the white walker beyond the wall, but instead he ran until reached Winterfell, where at least he’ll die at the hands of human being.
All of which is very sad.
Which is my point: Van Patten creates a very sympathetic portrayal of Will in order to use that sympathy to distinguish the perspectives of the characters in Winterfell by virtue of how they react to him. He can’t replicate the structure of the book, but as I’ll discuss tomorrow, he can create situations in which the content of those individual chapters is efficiently communicated.